Money problems forced SK Sturm Graz to focus on young Austrian talent recently but they are making a virtue of a necessity near the top of the Bundesliga.
League champions in 1997/98 and 1998/99, Sturm were competing in the UEFA Champions League at the back end of the last millennium, but cash has been extremely tight in recent times. Since 2005, financial issues have been ever present with the club being faced with a petition for bankruptcy in September 2006 for unpaid taxes.
Off the top
Somehow avoiding financial meltdown in the last 18 months, Sturm have been forced to live within their limited means in recent seasons, but the lean and mean approach clearly suits them. They went into the winter break top of the Austrian table, and while they have slipped to fifth since, they are still only three points off the summit and in with a very strong chance of a European place for next season.
Graz's German coach Franco Foda has been able to weave together youth and experience to good effect. Seasoned forward Mario Haas and Bosnia-Herzegovnian midfielder Samir Muratovic provide their wise core while younger players like captain Jürgen Säumel and Sebastian Prödl – set to join Werder Bremen in the summer – have done well enough to rouse the interest of Austria coach Josef Hickersberger.
'Not the past'
While a 1-0 defeat by FC Wacker Tirol in the first round of 2008 last weekend has seen Sturm's halo slip a little, 20-year-old defender Prödl – who, like Säumel, is in with a good shout of playing for Austria at UEFA EURO 2008™ – has not been in any way disheartened. "Football is not the past," he said. "Football is the present and the future."
The future, however, is likely to be a testing one for Sturm. Foda had been eager to bring in some reinforcements during the winter break but sporting director Walter Hörmann found that the club's budget restrictions would make no allowances for new recruits. Graz instead must rely on keeping their best players fit for the one thing they do not have is strength in depth.
Nonetheless, Hörmann is keen to accentuate the positives, saying: "The big advantage compared to [FC] Salzburg, [FK] Austria Wien or [SK] Rapid Wien is that we don't have to win the title. Still, the players believe we can do it. Sturm are about creating talent now.
We have reduced the number of foreign players from 14 to four and we will continue this way."
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